While Americans are preparing for Memorial Day remembrances and cook-outs, something else is happening on the Isle of Man this weekend.? Saturday, the 25th of May is the first practice day this year for the Tourist Trophy Races, more commonly known simply as the TT Races. In case you’re not a motorcycle racing aficionado, the first TT Race was in 1907.? The course was much shorter than the current one and went through Castletown in the south rather than over the Snaefell Mountain route in the north due to concerns about the motorcycles being powerful enough to cope with the climb. There were two separate races for two different classes of motorcycles. The winners were H. Rem Fowler for twin cylinder class race, averaging 36.22 mph, and Charlie Collier for the single cylinder class race, averaging 38.22 mph. While that might not seem all that fast nowadays, on the roads of that day and on the motorcycles they rode, it would have been a white-knuckled ride. However, by 1911 the machinery and popularity made it possible to use the northern half of the Isle, across the Snaefell Mountain road, much the same as will happen this year. An American Indian won with an average speed of 47.63 mph.? Oh, I should tell you that “Indian” was the make of motorcycle, not ethnicity of the rider. In those early years, according to TTwebsite.com, the road over the mountain was “little more than a cart track and there were gates across the road. It was the duty of the first rider round in the morning to open all the gates on his way, and the last one to close them all.” When added to the hairpin turns (which still exist) and a climb from sea level to about 1400 ft. elevation, the feat of the riders to complete the course, much less averaging almost 50 mph, is rather impressive. However, John McGuinness averaged (not topped out at, but averaged) 128.426?mph in 2011 on much the same course, but better paved.? I have driven much of the course averaging about 80mph in my ’63 Vette, and can say that John must have monster cojones.? My knuckles were white when I finished.
The hazards of the course explain?a big problem with the TT Races: the deaths. The first one happened in 1913 and there have been 239 rider deaths in the TT Races and Manx Grand Prix (considered an amateur race on the same course, taking place in late August).? There have also been two officials and two spectators killed by motorcycles during the races over the years.? How did these happen?? It’s one tough course on narrow, two lane, often twisty roads along stone walls and stone houses at breakneck speeds.? One mistake could cost a rider his life. ? According to the the British newspaper Daily Mail, Barry Sheene, who rode the TT in 1971, vowed he would never return, saying,? “It is impossible to make that course even reasonably safe.? It is 37 miles of stone walls and telegraph poles. If you come off you hit a solid obstacle. I don’t think hitting a stray horse in the middle of the road is a true test of men or machines.”? So, am I advocating banning the TT’s?? Definitely not.? For one thing, I would hate to live the rest of my life watching over my shoulder for a Manx assassin, looking for revenge.? For another, like most Manx, I believe in free choice and responsibility.? While not a biker, I have been known to take some of my performance cars a bit over so-called “safe” speeds.? If I crash and burn because I exceed my capabilities, that’s my fault.? Not my car’s.? Same with the races.? The riders make a choice, going for the thrill.? Is it the race’s fault if they exceed their capabilities?? No.
The Manx way of thinking is that you should know your abilities and not exceed them.? The Isle has no speed limit unless posted.? If you get in an accident, at least one party will get a ticket because someone did something to cause it.? If it’s a single-car accident, the driver will get a ticket because he or she was driving unsafely.? It is not the speed that kills, but speeding unwisely.? I guess a lot of that Manx philosophy remains with me.
So, besides my trip around the course in my Vette, what are my personal experiences with the TT’s?? For one, my wife and I used to help out at our church, Kirk Bradden, with serving snacks and beverages to spectators.? Kirk Bradden is on the Peel Road, right where the bikers have to slow for an “ess” curve.? The members of the church would bring out benches for spectators and provide nourishment for them, all for a little profit.? Members would make sandwiches and bake desserts, all sold for as a fund raiser.? I became huckster and cashier for the food.? I did up the prices.? For example, a huge piece of chocolate cake sold for 30p (about $.50).? The members were spending more in making them than the church netted for selling them.? After twenty years of running a business, I had to change that.? It was fun, but I could have done better if I spoke German.
I think the largest number of bikers who come to the Isle for the races are German.? In fact, there are numerous signs posted saying both “Keep Left” and? ?Immer Links? to warn those not used to British rules of the road.? Hopefully, they have prevented some nasty head-ons.? I must say that, considering the little Isle is packed with about 50,000 visitors, bikers no less, and that most of them are hoisting a pint or two at a minimum, there is no real increase in crime or violence.? The Isle is pretty much as safe during the races as all other times, which is very safe.
My last anecdote about the TT’s is on what is called “Mad” Sunday, the day after the races end.? On that Sunday, anyone can drive the 37.739 mile course and all traffic is one-way, just like for the racers.? It is a biker’s time to go a little wild and cars stay off the course.? It’s not a law, but a tradition all wise motorists follow.? I was not aware of this the first year we moved there.? We drove to church that morning in our little Ford Mondeo before the event started.? When we set off on our return drive along the Peel Road, the bikers were out in force.? Fortunately, we were heading the right direction, but it was like swimming along with a school of sharks.? I think a few even grinned at us like sharks, but their face shields hid it.? I am not a nervous driver, but having swarms of bikes weaving in and out around me did make me a bit edgy.? After about six miles of it, I was glad to turn off on the Braaid Road and head home. Needless to say, I used the back roads on Mad Sunday from then on.
I am not a motorcyclist.? I like four wheels on the ground.? But I did enjoy the way the Isle revved up for the TT’s.? They’ve been going on every year since they began, with the notable exception of 1915-1919? and 1940-1946, due to the World Wars.? I hope they continue, for they are the major part of the Isle’s tourist trade and a great tradition.